Help! My Black Nephew Thinks He’s Yellow

Our Race Manners columnist answered your burning questions in a Reddit Ask Me Anything. Check out her answers!


I think it’s always worth engaging if you’re bothered by something because if no one ever engaged with people whose thinking about race was problematic, a lot more of us would still be living on “nice” or not-so-nice “slave sites” today.


Keinlife: Hi, Jenée, thanks for doing this!

How would you respond to people who claim that we’re past significant racial issues and tensions in the U.S. as evidenced by our electing a black president (also up for discussion)? The more practical the response the better.

Jenée Desmond-Harris: Hi! Thanks for your question. I’d probably point out that we have one black president and tens of thousands of other people in the country. Focusing on the tens of thousands of others reveals huge and well-documented racial disparities in everything from education to criminal justice to access to health care. If that’s not enough proof, tell them to search for the n-word on Twitter and report back on what they find.


Tracylc: Hey! I have a question. So my nephew is 5 and very, very fair-skinned. At some point in a conversation the issue of my nephew being black came up, and my nephew says, “I’m not black, I’m yellow!” presumably because his dad calls him “lil yellow boy” from time to time.

I thought briefly about trying to explain race and all that to him in a way that he’d understand, but stopped because I didn’t know how, firstly, or if it was time for such things.

My question: When do you begin to talk with kids about race, in your opinion? How young is too young?

Jenée Desmond-Harris: That’s funny. I definitely used to think I was “pink.” And I just heard a friend’s story about how she thought her (black, fair-skinned) mom was white until she was 10 years old. The kid just learned what colors were a few years ago, so I can definitely see how this could be confusing. How about a focus on ancestry/history (which is the more meaningful part of race) instead? As in “Our family is African-American. That means our ancestors came from Africa. African-American people come in all different colors, including brown and yellow. We use the word ‘black,’ but that’s silly because no one is actually the color black.” I think a 5-year-old could start to get that.